It appears as if Georgetown has (finally) made an interesting addition to their faculty. Michael Eric Dyson, a scholar of black culture not afraid to speak his mind, is the first high profile African American to teach on campus since Bobby McFerrin. For a school that doesn’t involve itself nearly enough with the black community surrounding it, this is a welcome addition.
Outspoken Scholar of Black Culture Joins Faculty
By Susan Kinzie
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, July 4, 2007; Page B06
Michael Eric Dyson, an author and media commentator on African American culture, joins the Georgetown University faculty this summer, a hire the provost described as “a spontaneous combustion of an idea.”
Dyson does have an explosive quality — often shaking things up, as he did with a very public fight with Bill Cosby over poverty and the black underclass. And he wants to make a splash in Washington — even if he’s not yet sure what form that will take.
“We’re talking force of nature here,” said James J. O’Donnell, the provost. Dyson has a booming voice, a hug for strangers, an enormous network of connections. “He’s a source of energy and an attractor of energy,” O’Donnell said.
Georgetown, which has never been known for scholarship in black issues, lured Dyson from the University of Pennsylvania. (Before that, he had jumped around among the University of North Carolina, Brown University, Columbia University and elsewhere. “I want to sink some roots,” he said.)
He’ll be a “university professor,” a post that gives him free reign across academic departments, and he expects to work in English, theology, sociology, philosophy and African American studies.
It’s the kind of hire that gets the school attention; Dyson is often mentioned in the same breath as such star scholars as Cornel West and Henry Louis Gates Jr.
It’s also the kind that can irk some academics. Dyson is a pop-culture guy, not a researcher hidden in a library or a lab. He’s on the radio, he’s on TV, he’s on book tour, he’s talking about hip-hop and Cosby and Don Imus. His latest book has an introduction by Jay-Z and an afterward (sorry, “intro” and “outro”) by Nas.
And he’s endorsing Barack Obama this week to a crowd of thousands at the Essence Music Festival in New Orleans. He and his wife are involved with Obama’s and Hillary Rodham Clinton’s presidential campaigns, respectively. With an election coming, it’s a great time to be in Washington, he said the day after he watched the Democratic candidates debate at Howard University.
He plans to “forge connections between the city and the university, with the black community, which perhaps felt alienated from Georgetown.”
O’Donnell said that, in the past, Georgetown has been “less engaged in the city’s life, on our hilltop in Northwest. We’ve turned that around in the last 30 to 40 years,” with many volunteers in public schools, legal clinics and other programs. “Sometimes reputation lags a little bit. We’d like to do even more.”
The city is “a laboratory of social ills that need to be addressed,” Dyson said, and he foresees opportunities to work in the schools, leverage the power of black churches in the area and strengthen the connections and visibility of existing Georgetown programs.
At Georgetown, O’Donnell said, Dyson will write, work with students and teach. “We expect him also to be a rainmaker for us in helping us develop programs” and attracting people to the school, O’Donnell said. He added that it was premature to say what the new programs might be.
“A lot of us are like, ‘Man! I wish we could have been juniors and seniors when this was announced,’ ” said William Godwin, who just graduated from Georgetown. When he got there, they didn’t have an African American studies program. Now there’s a minor. “To not even have a program, and to bring someone of that caliber, that speaks a lot about the university’s commitment to expanding the program,” Godwin said.
The Rev. Grainger Browning of Ebenezer AME Church in Fort Washington, who knows Dyson by reputation, said he thought Dyson, who is a Baptist minister, would be a good bridge between Georgetown and churches and others in the community. “The black community primarily knows them for their basketball team — this will allow them to be on the radar for social issues.”